We Also Need To “Restore Sanity” In Food Politics

  • Published on October 31st, 2010

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Yesterday I drove 28 miles to attend the San Diego version of the “Rally to Restore Sanity.”  I’m glad I did.  Even in this Southern California bastion of political conservatism, there were at least 200 people meeting at Dick’s Last Resort to watch the DC event and to encourage each other that we are not alone as people who don’t like the hyper-partisan trend in politics.   The media continues to characterize the participants as predominantly young people.  In fact, there were a great many grey-haired folks like myself at the rally and on the National Mall.  This was definitely a cross-generational event.

Yesterday’s event in DC was a dose of badly needed encouragement for me as a political moderate.  It also made me wish that there were some highly talented satirists like Stewart and Colbert who would talk about food politics.

Food Politics Is A Little Bit Different, But Not Entirely

The Comedy Central team did a great job yesterday of pointing out the absurdity and imbalance in the world of cable news.  They called them out for promoting irrational fear (both from the right and from the left).  From my perspective as an agricultural scientist, there is a similar set of voices out there promoting fear about agriculture.  These sources present the same sort of “circus mirror view” of modern agriculture that John Stewart described for other politics yesterday.  In general politics, people carelessly throw around accusations of “racism,” or “socialism,” and compare people to Hitler.  In food politics the equivalent emotive terms are things like “industrial agriculture“,”profit-driven” and “Frankenfoods.”  In neither setting are people being given balanced information.

These voices relentlessly demonize farmers in a way that completely misrepresents the kind of hard-working, risk-taking, environmentally concerned people I know them to be.  They paint a monolithic image of farming as an environmental disaster with no recognition of the great advances that have been made.  These voices also demonize any “corporate” actors even though these are the entities that have invested the billions of dollars necessary to give us any hope of feeding the world over the next few decades.

These voices generate continual, breathless predictions of impending disaster related to GMOs, even though no such thing has happened after nearly 15 years of deployment of that technology on billions of acres of farm land.  There seems to be no statue of limitations when it comes to saying that “the sky is falling!”

Agriculture Has Problems and Challenges, But This Isn’t Helping

As Stewart pointed out yesterday, sources of frantic hyperbole do not cause our problems, but they make it far harder to solve our problems. It is no real surprise that the industry with the largest, physical footprint (billions of acres) would have real environmental issues.  What is not acknowledged by most of the fear purveyors is that we have learned  how to minimize or eliminate important problems and made real progress.  Now we should be talking about how to implement the best environmental practices on the hundreds of millions of acres of “conventional” farmland.  We can’t keep pretending that something like “Local” or “Organic” will ever be more than a small contribution to the overall challenge.

We need to discuss why not all farming is not being done in the best possible way.  It is not because of some “vast corporate conspiracy.” It is not because we lack for “family farms” or “responsible farmers.”    It is because we as a society do not “monetize externalities” (pay for the true environmental costs) in a way that would help farmers to afford certain changes.  It is because we don’t have farmland lease structures that make it practical for growers to make the multi-year investment that it takes to transition land into the sort of “drought proofed” and “pollution protected” soils that are possible.  We can make some significant progress, but not by demonizing each other.

As with the rest of our national politics, the stakes are high.  Feeding the world in an age of climate change while protecting the environment is a huge and critical challenge with major strategic, economic and moral implications.  The topic deserves sane discourse, not alarmism and demonization.  This is another sphere were we desperately need to “Restore Sanity.”

You are welcome to comment on this post or to email me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com

Rally poster image from Cliff1066

About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)

3 comments

  • I couldn’t agree more, Steve. The whole time I was watching that rally I was thinking of this as a specific instance of people talking past each other–“Why would you reach across the aisle to a pumpkin-assed, forehead eyeball monster?”

    And the hyperbole yields this: “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.”

    But everyone hates the people in the middle trying to bridge this–both sides aim at them. It is very hard to stand there. Do you know how much e-ink I saw spilled yesterday calling Jon Stewart a corporate shill? Sigh….

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